Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson has told reporters that he doesn’t play moneyball when building and turning over his roster.
Translation: Ted Thompson most definitely plays moneyball.
We all know it because he’s not afraid to let players walk away if the contracts don’t add up to his perceived value to the team. He’d rather replace that production with younger and cheaper players who have their best days in front of them.
Many Packers fans bemoan the loss of productive, yet aging, players in free agency to other teams who had no problem dishing out the large contracts that Thompson simply wouldn’t. Was Thompson simply cheap? Or was he genius in hindsight?
Signing high-priced free agents is a double-edged sword. There’s the old adage that a general manager should do whatever it takes to bring in a player he covets, whether through overpaying with draft picks or with big contracts. However, overpaying a player on the decline can have devastating effects on the salary cap, especially if a player under-performs the contract and is released early, resulting in dead money.
Let’s take a look at some highly notable free agents that Thompson let walk and evaluate if it was a good or bad decision. Hindsight is always fun, isn’t it?
2005 Signing Period
Mike Wahle, Guard. The Carolina Panthers signed the 27 year old guard for 5 years/$25 million. Back in 2005, that was a pretty large contract for a non-left tackle. Wahle was released after three seasons in a cost-cutting measure amid reports that he wasn’t playing very well.
Verdict: Thompson was correct. Wahle was overpaid and he under-performed, and he was unceremoniously shown the door. The Packers did make the NFC Championship Game in 2007, and they didn’t lose because of their guard play.
Marco Rivera, Guard. Similarly to Wahle, Thompson let Rivera walk after the 2004 season for a richer contract elsewhere. Dallas had no problem signing the then-32 year old Rivera to 5 years/$20 million contract. This contract was called one of the worst ever by the Cowboys because Rivera was released after an unspectacular two seasons plagued by chronic back issues.
Verdict: Thompson was correct. Rivera was overpaid and he under-performed, and he was unceremoniously shown the door. The Packers did make the NFC Championship Game in 2007, and they didn’t lose because of their guard play.
2007 Signing Period
Ahman Green, Running Back. Despite his fumbles, Green was beloved by Packers fans and became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. However, Thompson chose to not re-sign the 30 year old running back, which is very old for the position. A desperate Houston had no problem offering him a 4 year/$23 million contract. Green was released after only two seasons, but he was interestingly brought back to Green Bay in another move of desperation.
Verdict: Thompson was correct. Despite being paid big money to be the featured back in Houston, Green only managed to rush for 554 yards in two seasons plagued by injuries. In today’s NFL, teams are better off drafting a young running back and getting fresh production that way.
2009 Signing Period
Colin Cole, Defensive Tackle. The Seattle Seahawks gave Cole a 5 year/$21.4 million contract to be an anchor on their defensive line. He lasted only two seasons before being released.
Verdict: Thompson was correct. In his two years in Seattle, he only managed 65 solo tackles and one quarterback sack. Somehow, he’s still in the league. Good for him.
2010 Signing Period
Aaron Kampman, Linebacker/Defensive End. The case of Kampman is different from other players being discussed here because he suffered a severe knee injury during 2009. Also, due the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, Kampman moved from his more natural defensive end position to a rush outside linebacker. Jacksonville still had no problem giving the 30 year old Kampman a 4 year/$24 million contract to play a 4-3 defensive end.
Verdict: Thompson was correct. Not only was Kampman not a good fit for the 3-4 defense in Green Bay, he only lasted a half of a season in Jacksonville before injuries forced him to retire from the game altogether. In his eight games there, he managed 4 sacks and 16 solo tackles. Even at his native defensive end, he wasn’t effective at all.
2011 Signing Period
Brandon Jackson, Running Back. After helping win a Super Bowl, Thompson decided to not re-sign the part-time running back. Cleveland had no problem giving him a 2 year/$4.5 contract that he never lived up to. In his two years in Cleveland, Jackson was injury plagued and managed only 54 total rushing yards.
Verdict: Thompson was correct. Signing running backs to second contracts is risky business in the modern NFL, and Jackson was quickly out of the league.
Daryn Colledge, Guard. Similarly to Jackson, Colledge helped the Packers win a Super Bowl but was not returned the favor with a lucrative contract. He used his Super Bowl success to leverage Arizona into giving him a 5 year/$27.5 million contract. He did go on to have a productive stint in Arizona, but was released from his contract after three seasons. After one season in Miami, he announced his retirement just four years removed from leaving Green Bay for greener pastures.
Verdict: Thompson was correct. Yes, Colledge did have a good stretch in Arizona and may have very well lived up to expectations out there, although he was released before he could finish the contract, suggesting he under-performed. Also, in his absence, T.J. Lang was allowed to develop and flourish, and he’s still in the league today while Colledge is at home enjoying his retired life. Had Colledge stuck around, we might not have T.J. currently owning the right guard position this season going forward.
Jason Spitz, Center/Guard. Spitz was a starter for the Packers early in his career before being replaced full-time by Scott Wells during the 2009 season. Jacksonville opened their wallets to this backup in the hopes he’d anchor their line at the tune of 3 years/$5.25 million. He only played one season in Jacksonville and started no games before being lost to injury.
Verdict: Thompson may have been correct. Spitz did nothing for the Jaguars, so they definitely overpaid and got nothing in return. Scott Wells was the next center for the Packers, but he left in 2012 (see below), and they had musical chairs at the center position for the next two seasons. It’s hard to tell if having Spitz around would have given them depth and production during a few turbulent years, even if it meant overpaying for him. Seeing as he couldn’t even win a starting job in Jacksonville, I’m inclined to believe Thompson was right.
Cullen Jenkins, Defensive End. For many fans, this loss still haunts. He was no doubt a key cog in the Super Bowl defense, but Thompson opted to not re-sign the aging defensive end. Philadelphia signed him to 5 years/$25 million. He lasted only two years in Philadelphia, and that is even after he restructured his contract after his first season there. Despite this appearance of massive production by Packers fans, he managed only 9.5 sacks in his two years for the Eagles before being released.
Verdict: Thompson may have been correct. Those 9.5 sacks would have come in handy during 2011-2012, but his overall production didn’t match his contract, which is evidenced by only playing two of the five years on it. He was 30 years old when leaving Green Bay, so he was definitely a player on the decline.
2012 Signing Period
Greg Jennings, Wide Receiver. Jennings was a very productive receiver, and the Vikings signed him to a 5 year/$47.5 million contract to be their number 1 receiver. After two mediocre seasons, he never matched his Green Bay productivity and he was released. In those two seasons, he caught 127 balls for 1546 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those aren’t horrible numbers, but they aren’t worthy of premier wide receiver dollars.
Verdict: Thompson was absolutely correct. Jennings left Green Bay as a screaming brat and then never lived up to the hype. The money saved by not signing Jennings undoubtedly went towards locking up Jordy Nelson and/or Randall Cobb long-term. There’s no way Thompson would carry three receivers on the roster averaging $9-10 million per season, and I think Nelson and Cobb are the better players at this point.
Scott Wells, Center. Wells was a decent center, but never quite spectacular in Green Bay. At age 31, St. Louis lured him away with a 4 year/$24 million contract. That’s rich for a center who wasn’t even the best lineman on the Packers’ roster. Wells lasted three seasons in St. Louis before being released. His play was decent, but certainly not worthy of $6 million a season.
Verdict: Probably a push. Wells would have come in handy during 2012 when the Packers had an unmitigated disaster at the center position. However, as time shows, his best days were behind him and he’s currently looking for a team this off season after a disastrous season where Pro Football Focus (paid site, so no link) rated him as one of the worst centers in the league.
2013 Signing Period
Erik Walden, Linebacker. Despite showing some flash, he also showed complete ineptitude against mobile quarterbacks and zone read attacks. Still, Indianapolis seemed desperate when they offered him a 4 year/$16 million contract. That’s not a huge contract by today’s standards, but when you consider he’s managed only 51 solo tackles and 9 sacks at the premier outside linebacker position, he’s grossly overpaid. He’s still in Indianapolis, but he’ll be fighting for a job during this training camp.
Verdict: Thompson was absolutely correct. Walden is overpaid and under-performs. As bad as Nick Perry seems at times, he’s still better than Walden. He frequently looks out of place and still hasn’t solved the mobile quarterback and zone read attacks.
2014 Signing Period
James Jones, Wide Receiver. Jones was a productive number 2 and 3 receiver while in Green Bay. He had a monster 2012 campaign when he caught 14 touchdowns, but he never managed more than 817 yards in a season. With Nelson and Cobb on the roster, the 30 year old Jones was destined to be the number 3 in Green Bay, but Oakland gave him a chance to be the number 1 or 2 with a 3 year/$10 million contract. After one mediocre year, he was just released by Oakland.
Verdict: Thompson was correct. Jones never lived up to the hype or contract, and he’s currently looking for a new team. Interestingly, Rotoworld posted they wouldn’t be surprised if he never plays a down of football again because he was that bad.
What does this all mean?
Based on the examples above, it means that Ted Thompson is good at reading the tea leaves. He’s good at not overpaying players on the decline or players that will never justify the big contracts that desperate teams will shell out. Almost every example above shows that players Thompson passed on didn’t go on to be superstars or All Pros. They didn’t live out their contracts, which means they didn’t play to the value they were signed to or injuries caught up with them.
Sure, no one can predict injury, but players that spend their careers banged up are often one play away from the the career-ending shot, such as Rivera and Kampman. Thompson likes to invest in young players on the rise and not players breaking down on their decent into middle age.
By letting players walk out of town to larger contracts, he’s able to build a core around young players like Randall Cobb, Mike Daniels, Sam Shields, and many others.
When the contracts above speak for themselves, I think many of you will agree that Thompson made the right calls. Other teams are responsible for all the dead money from these failed deals, and that has helped keep the Packers’ cap clean for years.——————